Belgium 1917: Battles of Broodseinde, Poelcappelle and Passchendaele
Zonnebeke, Tyne Cot Cemetery
The many byways to hell – Captain Frank Hurley at Passchendaele
Today the view from Tyne Cot looks over peaceful fields and farms, but in October 1917 in this countryside 6,405 Australians were killed in action or died of wounds and a further 19,194 were wounded. This makes October 1917 the worst single month of the war for the AIF. It is hard to imagine this place as it was then, a desolation of mud, wind and rain in which men strove to bring forward guns and supplies and from which they tried to retrieve the wounded:
As the last man was being carried [out] … a wounded German followed the two runners carrying the stretcher. As they were unable to take him they tried to induce him to go back, but he was badly wounded, and seemed only to realise it was a stretcher, and a stretcher … meant help. He tried to follow them on his hands and knees. His progress became slower and slower till he stopped, and his head sank forward and buried in the sea of mud.
F C Green, The Fortieth, Hobart, 1922, p.92
Two men who conveyed an impression of what the Tyne Cot–Zonnebeke area looked like at the height of the battles here in October 1917 are Captain Frank Hurley, the Australian official photographer, and his assistant, Lieutenant Hubert Wilkins. Hurley and Wilkins made a number of journeys onto the battlefield during October 1917, all of them recorded in Hurley’s diary. The things Hurley saw there affected him greatly as the two men recorded the life of this tortured space in which, as the battalion historian of the 40th Battalion Captain Frank Green, wrote, ‘two armies of the white race [fought] furiously amid a sea of mud in a struggle of extermination’.
The photographs speak for themselves but there is one that summed up the sheer misery of Passchendaele. It was taken on 12 October 1917, the day of the Battle of Passchendaele itself when Hurley and Wilkins were working their way along the Ieper–Roulers railway cutting north of Zonnebeke close to Tyne Cot. They were soaking wet, terrified by the exploding shells, and it seemed to Hurley that they might at any moment be killed and become like the mutilated corpses that littered the cutting:
I noticed an awful sight: a party of, ten or so, telephone men all blown to bits. Under a questionably sheltered bank lay a group of dead men. Sitting by them in little scooped out recesses sat a few living; but so emaciated by fatigue and shell shock that it was hard to differentiate. Still the whole was just another of the many byways to hell one sees out here, and which are so strewn with ghastliness that the only comment is, ‘Poor beggar copped it thick’, or else nothing at all.
Captain Frank Hurley, diary, 12 October 1917,
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010